By Rob Gillies THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
TORONTO — Canada’s former attorney general testified Wednesday she experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to inappropriately interfere in the prosecution of a major Canadian engineering company, including receiving “veiled threats.”
Ex-justice minister and ex-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould called it “incredibly inappropriate” but said she didn’t think it was illegal because she wasn’t instructed to seek a settlement. She said 11 people tried to interfere in her prosecutorial discretion including Trudeau.
In a meeting with Trudeau, the prime minister raised the issue and asked her to “help out” with the case, she said.
Wilson-Raybould said she asked Trudeau if he was politically interfering with her role as attorney general and told him she would strongly advise against it.
“No, no, no. We just need to find a solution,” she said Trudeau responded.
She said Trudeau told her that if Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin didn’t get a deferred prosecution there would be jobs lost and the company would move its headquarters from Montreal to London and noted he was a lawmaker from Quebec. Wilson-Raybould said she was “barraged” and subjected to “hounding” by members of the government.
Trudeau disputed her view of events.
“I strongly maintain, as I have from the beginning, that I and my staff always acted appropriately and professionally, and therefore I completely disagree with the characterization of the former attorney general about these events,” he said at a news conference.
Trudeau said the decision on whether to forgo prosecution and enter a plea agreement with the company was hers and hers alone.
He also welcomed the investigation of the ethics commissioner while he rejected calls by the leader of the opposition Conservative Party to resign, saying Canadians will have a choice later this year in parliamentary elections.
“My job as prime minister is to stand up for jobs. I have done that and will continue to do that. That is a fundamental role of a Canadian prime minister,” Trudeau said.
Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer also said police should investigate and called Trudeau a disgraced prime minister. Jagmeet Singh, leader of the opposition NDP, said there should be a public inquiry but stopped short of calling for Trudeau to step down.
“He may need to resign because of this,” he said. “What we heard today was explosive.”
Trudeau’s government has been on the defensive since the Globe and Mail newspaper reported Feb. 7 that Trudeau or his staff pressured her to try to avoid a criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin over allegations of corruption involving government contracts in Libya. Critics say that would be improper political meddling in a legal case.
“For a period of approximately four months, between September and December of 2018, I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada,” she told a Parliament justice committee.
The scandal has been a significant blow to Trudeau, who is facing an election this year.
Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s closet adviser, resigned last week but denied that he or anyone else pressured Wilson-Raybould. Michael Wernick, the top civil servant in the government, has also said that no inappropriate pressure was put on Wilson-Raybould.
Wilson-Raybould resigned from the Cabinet on Feb. 12 as veteran affairs minister but gave no reasons. She had been unexpectedly demoted from justice minister last month, and was furious, releasing a 2,000-word statement after that.
“I was concerned I was shuffled because of a decision I would not take with SNC, I raised those concerns with the PM,” she said. “Those concerns were denied.”
Wilson-Raybould compared the situation to President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” firing of the independent special prosecutor overseeing the Watergate investigation in 1973.
The Globe and Mail’s report this month said Trudeau’s office pressured her to instruct the director of public prosecutions to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin. The agreement would have allowed the company to pay reparations but avoid a criminal trial on charges of corruption and bribery.
If convicted criminally, the company would be banned from receiving any federal government business for a decade. SNC-Lavalin is a major employer in Quebec, with about 3,400 employees in the province, 9,000 employees in Canada and more than 50,000 worldwide.
“It’s OK to talk about job losses. It’s OK to talk about it in initial conversations but when those topics continue to be brought up after there is a clear awareness that a decision has been made it becomes inappropriate,” Wilson-Raybould said.
“Where they became very clearly inappropriate was when political issues came up, like the election in Quebec, like losing the election were SNC to move its headquarters.”
She said there would be merits in separating the roles of attorney general and justice minister.
Asked if she has confidence in Trudeau, Wilson-Raybould twice did not answer yes
Wilson-Raybould remains a member of Trudeau’s Liberal party in Parliament. She said she doesn’t anticipate being kicked out of the party. Trudeau said he hadn’t reviewed her entire testimony and needed to see that before he made any decision on her membership.
Daniel Beland, a political science professor at McGill university, said Wilson-Raybould’s testimony is very bad for Trudeau and threatens his re-election chances this fall.
“Her testimony was both detailed and credible. She also implicated a lot of people, from top advisers and the most powerful civil servant in the country to the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister, Bill Morneau,” Beland said. “The Liberals have fallen in the polls since this story emerged and today’s testimony is likely to make things worse for them, at least in the short run.”